A miniature replica of the Gagarin Cup and a commemorative puck marking the tenth season of the KHL were launched into orbit on Sunday from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome, from where the first man in space began his glorious mission, and from where Sputnik, the first ever artificial satellite, was sent on its historic voyage.
For the League, the real countdown to this mission began back on the 30th of November, when KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko went to Star City to present the crew of the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft with the puck and the replica trophy.
Everything on the day of the launch is timed down to the minute. Early this morning, the crew of the spacecraft left their hotel and headed for the cosmodrome. Then followed one of the most important of the pre-flight procedures – putting on the space suits and checking the integrity of this famous and special protective clothing. And all in the glare of the world's press photographers.
Following Saturday's big press conference, there was another, more low-key affair, attended by the families of the three-man crew, but only a fraction of the previous day's media. The clear barrier was now double-strength, to protect the intrepid trio from the germs of the photographers and camera crews.
The miniature Gagarin Cup and 10th-anniversary puck were also present, but then they, too, were taken away to be prepared for lift-off.
Then came the pre-mission procedures – the cosmonauts are placed in a special cradle, and connected to a range of instruments which take multiple readings, monitoring the physical conditions of the spacemen. The first to undergo all these tests was the captain, Anton Shkaplerov, who took the trophy and promised to keep abreast of the KHL from the Space Station, particularly the matches in the playoffs, in which he hopes to see his beloved CSKA.
When all was completed, there was time for a talk with the family. Then there was a buzz of excitement in the hall heralding the arrival of the crew member from Japan, Norishige Kanai. The journalists of the rising sun seemed to have an endless supply of questions for their compatriot.
Just as the press pack was asked to leave the room, the youngest daughter of Anton Shkaplerov remembered the Gagarin Cup. "Dad, has the trophy been loaded?" she asks. I think it will reach space with no problems,” - Shkaplerov responds, glancing around for the valuable piece of cargo.
After this, all proceeded with military precision. Out on the asphalt, white lines indicated who should go where, and where to stop. The cosmonauts, suited up, stand on their allocated squares (marked separately for the captain and the two flight engineers). There is a short report on readiness for the flight, and then it is time to climb aboard the bus.
All the journalists and tourists are moved to a special observation area, located a kilometer from the launch pad. A big screen tells us there is half-an-hour remaining. All around is the snowy wilderness, with other launch pads dotting the landscape. There is not a single cloud in the Kazakh sky. Then all eyes are on the Gagarin Cup, the real one, as it is brought to its own observation post, where it stands amid the snow.
Immediately there is a line of people waiting to be photographed with the trophy, even though not everyone believes it is the real thing. “Probably just a copy,” remarks a nearby skeptic, but all doubts disappear on attempting to lift the trophy, which weighs in at over 40lbs. And in 30 minutes' time, its younger brother would be heading for the heavens and would soon weigh nothing in the zero gravity orbit.
On with the countdown: 13.21 local time 10.21 in Moscow, and then the roar as the rocket comes to life, rises above the ground, and swiftly disappears into the sky, leaving behind a trail of fire. For two-thirds of a century, mankind has been making this journey into space, and it is natural to be blasé about the phenomenon, but here at Baikonur, few can watch the launch without being impressed by the power and majesty of this triumph of engineering.
The Gagarin Cup, set on a low hill, reflects the flames of the launch in its shiny metal. Somewhere in the bowels of the spacecraft, its "little brother." is heading for space and into KHL history.